Fantastic Fest Review: In LADYWORLD It’s Lipstick Not Love That Sustains You

Amanda Kramer’s low-budget debut delves into the malevolent side of female friendship.

Most women have a story from their past about being picked on or victimized by their own gender. Throughout the agony of adolescence, insecurities among the “softer sex” tend to flash like neon signs. What’s unfortunate, but true, is that few are capable of identifying and exploiting a girl’s vulnerabilities more than another girl, and some are more than happy to comply. Amanda Kramer explores this harsh reality in her debut feature, Ladyworld. Examining the hierarchy in a clique of teenage girls, the director boldly tosses out the old “sugar and spice and everything nice” adage to delve deeper into the malevolent side of female friendships.

The low-budget film impresses with a talented ensemble of up and coming young actresses, including Maya Hawke, Annalise Basso, Ryan Simpkins, and Ariela Barer. Following eight teenage girls trapped at an endless birthday party in the aftermath of a massive earthquake, panic leads to madness when they start to run out of food and water. Survival becomes a ferocious fight for power, dividing the girls into separate groups according to their petty perceptions of strong versus weak and pretty versus ugly. Plunging into chaos, the dominant personalities overpower the fragile as writer/director Kramer throws in the threat of “the man” hiding somewhere in the house, deftly incorporating the constant fear in the back of a young woman’s mind of unwanted sexual attention and violence.

The cast each play their disparate parts in a way that is exaggerated but relatable: Olivia (Barer) is the reliable one; Piper (Basso), the mean one; Dolly (Simpkins), the sensitive one; and Romy (Hawke), the wild card. The house, which previously acted as their playground, dissolves into a claustrophobic battleground. Kramer’s theater background comes into play as she utilizes every nook and cranny of the set without shifting the focus from the characters and the slow chaotic build to mass hysteria. The costumes are simple, indicating that the group was playing dress-up before the catastrophe, slowly stripping them of their girlish innocence as they feed on each other's insecurities to tear each other apart. The score reverberates through the house like an aftershock. Consisting of what sounds like the girls’ panting or erupting into catlike yowls, it operates as an extension of their deteriorating psyches.

Strong imagery, including a scene copying Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” places the girls behind a long dining room table as they argue over who should be the leader. Femininity translates into power as the dominant group rules from their headquarters in the master bedroom armed with an endless supply of makeup they apply as war paint. Succumbing to their animalistic and predatory nature, they saunter through the house like cats in silk slips and kimonos, frightening the others into submission. Echoes of Girl Interrupted and Lord of the Flies permeate the film as the once friendly group turns on each other one by one.

It’s never clear that there’s really no escape from the house, insinuating that the girls consciously choose to continue down this destructive path. Kramer’s message isn’t subtle, but it’s powerful. While the budget constraints result in a lack of intensity to some of the more brutal scenes, the film brings another fierce female perspective to the world of cinema. Pondering the savage nature of teenage girls, Ladyworld maintains that it’s always more beneficial for them to band together than to tear each other apart.